(Photo: AP Photo/Evan Vucci, Pool)
President Obama delivered tonight what some political observers say could be one of the most important speeches of his presidency. His initial goal was to make a case for military intervention in Syria and build support among cynical lawmakers and a distrustful American public.
But by the time he entered the East Room of the White House to address the nation, a new diplomatic option was on the table. It did not, however, prevent the president from also keeping the military force option open.
Obama opened his remarks with a graphic description of the results of chemical weapons attacks on Aug 21 that killed and injured more than 1,000 Syrians, including hundreds of children.
"The images from this massacre are sickening: men, women, children lying in rows killed by poison gas. Others foaming at the mouth gasping for breath, a father clutching his dead children, imploring them to get up and walk," the president said.
The use of chemical weapons in Syria, evidence of which, he added, was indisputable, violates international law and is a danger to national security here at home.
"When dictators commit atrocities, they depend upon the world to look the other way until those horrifying images fade from memory," Obama said. "The question now is what the United States of America and the international community is prepared to do about it."
That is why, he said, he decided that the appropriate response would be a targeted military strike, "to deter Assad from using chemical weapons, to degrade his regime's ability to use them and to make clear to the world that we will not tolerate their use."
The president said he would pursue a diplomatic solution offered by Russia and has asked Congress to postpone a vote to authorize a military strike, yet he is keeping the option open should diplomacy fail.
On Monday, Russia and Syria announced a proposal calling for the Middle Eastern nation to turn over its cache of chemical weapons to Russia. Syria also has agreed to sign an international treaty that prohibits the production, stockpiling and use of chemical weapons. And on Thursday, Secretary of State John Kerry is scheduled to fly to Geneva to meet with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lvrov.
"It's too early to tell whether this offer will succeed, and any agreement must verify that the Assad regime keeps its commitments. But this initiative has the potential to remove the threat of chemical weapons without the use of force, particularly because Russia is one of Assad's strongest allies," Obama said.
While these developments are indeed positive signs that also serve to prevent a humiliating defeat for Obama if one or both chambers of Congress were to reject the military option in a vote, there are wrinkles.
Paramount among them is whether Russian President Vladimir Putin or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad can be trusted. In addition, Putin is calling for the threat of strikes to be removed if the deal is to move forward.
"Even I think we have to be Reaganesque and 'trust but verify' the sincerity of the proposal," Missouri Rep. Emanuel Cleaver told BET.com. "We would be foolish to ignore the chance for a diplomatic conclusion but if we determine that those weapons are not being moved and in the control of Russia, we'll be back at square one."
Furthermore, several lawmakers believe that without the threat of air strikes, the Russian plan would likely never have been proposed. So while they encourage pursuing it, they also believe the White House must continue to hammer home its commitment to use military force if the crisis is not resolved diplomatically.
"Keeping the military option will force Russia and Syria to carry out the plan and ensures there is some type of alternative in case they don't," said Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Maryland).
"Let me make something clear," he said. "The United States military doesn't do pinpricks. Even a limited strike will send a message to Assad that no other nation can deliver."
The president acknowledged and empathized with some of the concerns he's heard from Americans who have no appetite for U.S. involvement in another war, but reiterated the moral justification for intervening in Syria.
"Terrible things happen across the globe, and it is beyond our means to right every wrong. But when, with modest effort and risk, we can stop children from being gassed to death and thereby make our own children safer over the long run, I believe we should act," Obama said. "That's what makes America different. That's what makes us exceptional."
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